Mycology is better than urology

6 10 2012

I just had an abso-bloody-lutely awesome day. I thought you might like to share, in case your own was only “meh”. It’s free – just give me a few minutes of your life and I’ll try and give you some vicarious entertainment.

As the more well-endowed in the memory department will recall, I recently joined the Vancouver Mycological Society. Their website makes the reasonably clever word play joke of this posting’s title, and that was enough to encourage me to part with my money. Being able to spout the Latin names for fungus is one thing… a sly and/or quick sense of humour is quite another!

As a fully paid up member (no jokes thank-you MM) of VMS, I get occasional emails of interesting mushroomy things happening around Vancouver. One such thing was information about a “hands on” mushroom cultivation seminar at the Homesteader’s Emporium on East Hastings, Vancouver. Sounded like a bit of a laugh, despite the $75 price tag. And there was the promise of taking home some interesting mushroom cultures. So anyway, I signed up and this morning found me up bright-eyed and bushy tailed, and on the road to Vancouver. Well, on the road to Vancouver anyway.

And so my adventures began…

This was waaaaaaay too early for the weekend, and I drove right past the motorway exit I needed, instead heading on auto-pilot for Richmond, where I work. Now the Lower Mainland is bifurcated (I’ve wanted to use that word ever since I read it in James Gleick‘s Chaos book when I was in my 20s!) by the Fraser River – and recursively so throughout Delta and Richmond in a way I’m sure Gleick would approve of. Basically this means that if you miss an exit… you’re screwed. There’s only a handful of bridges and one token tunnel. So my lack of attention while cruising along listening to “+” by Ed Sheeren (he may be a ginge, but he’s from Halifax, so I’ll let him off.) meant I had to carry on to the Oak Street bridge and approach the Emporium from the West instead of the East as I’d planned. This was a tad awkward for two reasons.

Firstly, East Hastings is Vancouver’s “dodgy bit”.  Now all things are relative, as Burt One-stone would have us all know, and so Vancouver’s definition of “dodgy” is still way safer than some small villages in the UK after dark (I was beaten nearly senseless in 1988 in the twee-by-daylight Stony Stratford. In true Jekyll/Hyde manner areas of it became no-go zones for “decent folk” after dark. I was nïave and was made to learn the lesson the hard way.)

Nevertheless, driving West to East along Hastings would take me right through Vancouver’s seedier underbelly. (It has other underbellies in full bloom, but this one is seedy.) It always makes me uncomfortable. Since the Riverview Hospital was basically closed down, many of Vancouver’s mentally ill have joined the already swollen ranks of its drug-haunted residents in congregating outside East Hastings’ many hostels and refuges. The discomfort comes from odd places. I guess I feel some sense of shared shame that our relatively affluent society can’t do better for these folk; that some I’m sure would reject it if we could; and lastly the very real possibility that any one of them could quite randomly launch themselves under the wheels of my car as it passed by.

Last night Mrs Elephant and I went to watch a French film as part of the VIFF festival (more later on that, I’m sure). As we walked back to the SkyTrain station, she was barrelled into by a tall and totally spaced out guy in his early 30s. He then barged into a similarly aged guy and started to aggressively accuse him of “looking at him a bit funny”. I forget the exact phrase, but meth heads the world over utter similar things randomly to slightly confused passers-by.

Where was I?

Ah yes – the second reason I didn’t want to travel West to East along Hastings… I’d only remembered the street names coming from the East! I hardly ever drive in Vancouver, preferring to use transit if at all possible The Homesteader’s Emporium was a little out of the city centre though, and I didn’t really want to have to negotiate the buses and potentially be late.

So anyway, having crossed the river via the Oak Street Bridge, I turned right along Marine and headed for Cambie Street, safe in the knowledge that it intersected with Hastings somewhere-or-other. Probably. All was well as I headed north on Cambie. I always find Vancouver a bit disorientating as you go downhill into Vancouver, and that just feels like it should be South somehow. So as I headed North over the Cambie Bridge (across False Creek), I was warmly reminded of my time working downtown, when I got to know this area quite well. Then I was suddenly shocked from my reverie to see Cambie Street as a cross-road, and thankfully was awake enough to take it.

Only Vancouver could have Cambie Street crossing Cambie Bridge and then turning into Smithe Street for no obvious reason, so it could cut across… Cambie Street!

Anyway, to cut an already lengthening story slightly shorter, I found myself on Hastings, and heading through scary-ville towards my destination. Thankfully traffic was pretty slow, and I spotted the turning I needed, and found a free parking spot on a road parallel to Hastings. 30 minutes early – bonus! Time for a tea. I walked past the shop which appeared closed and shuttered behind grills, just to make sure I’d got the right place. Safe in that knowledge I set off in search of caffeine (e before i). 10 minutes later I gave up, but had discovered that EVERY shop in the area was covered in steel grills. Every other building was a refuge or thrift store. There were little knots of weather-beaten men hacking up bits of lung through toothless mouths, or just sat on the pavement with their heads between their knees. One old lady was studiously counting out her morning’s crop of alcohol bottles at the Astoria pub to get enough refunded deposits for her breakfast, no doubt.

I didn’t feel unsafe particularly, just out of place. I headed back to the shop to wait, confident that there would be no cafés or bakeries in this area. The shop turned out to be open after all – just heavily grilled. It also turned out to be one of those annoying establishments with a door handle begging to be pulled, but which requires you to push to have any reward for your effort. The young lady in attendance seemed glad to have a customer, and I apologised for being a little early, but could I register for “the mushroom thing”? Apologising profusely for the absence of “Rick”, she declined, which wasn’t entirely what I was expecting. Trying a different tack and gauging from her late 20’s demeanor that I’d have more success in this direction, I asked if there was a local caffeine station she might direct me to. Plainly on firmer ground she said there were in fact two – The Wilder Snail (I shit you not – that’s its name) and The Union Food Market, which she recommended particularly. So, armed with instructions culled from Google, I set out bravely into the vast unknown (to me) which is Vancouver’s Eastside. And here my eyes were opened.

I admit freely that I was hugely biased. I have not previously walked these streets, and I wrongly assumed that the clean but somehow grubby at the same time feeling I got from East Hastings would continue for a few blocks North and South of it. How wrong could I be? As I walked up (down) Hawks Avenue, I was instantly in a downright twee environment. Parks; bike lanes; painted clapperboard houses; the aforementioned more party-prone mollusc; more parks; hipsters; cute young ladies with dogs; all manner of pleasant things!

True – to be fair – there was one young bloke trying to liberate himself of a truly epic loogie, being egged on by a Latino gentleman espousing the use of Tequila to lubricate its passage, but apart from that, it felt like a lovely area to live. Now, I’m not one to tell half a story (not when I can tell the same one three different ways!) There was one door with “We’re fucking watching you asshole” daubed on it. I was shocked! Surely it’s “arsehole” they meant! What is happening to the Queen’s English these days? And there were a few lengths of razor-wire here and there – presumably to limit the ingress opportunities of loogie-hurlers. But there were vegetable gardens, beautiful flowers, and fancy cars parked with gay abandon. Or potentially abandoned by gays – this after all being Vancouver.

So anyway, I marched past The Wilder Snail on my way to the “preferred” café, but realised I was running out of time to get back to the Homesteader’s Emporium for the start of the seminar. I hate being late, so I turned back. I must have been within yards of the Union Food Market when I did this, but such is life.

The Wilder Snail was OK. It had a clutch of “look at me” types poring over laptops or reading thick paperbacks. I ordered a regular drip coffee, which was served from a pump flask and cost more than it should. I took revenge by taking as much milk as I could fit into the cup without making a mess, and headed back in search of mushroom lore, via the opportunity to observe the habitat of dog-owning hipster chicks. The server wore a French T-shirt, and the radio was playing French music. Très escargot! (That’s French for “pretentious”).

I took a slightly different route along East Pender, and saw two very desirable homes for sale. Also a beautifully maintained pale green vintage roadster. I felt lighter as I crossed back over Hastings and into my mushroom adventure.

I thought I was the first to arrive, but the host Scott Henderson assured me that this was not the case, and I wouldn’t be alone. The 4 chairs laid out in the car park didn’t bode well for a large audience though, despite dire warnings that booking late might mean the cap of 15 people causing you to miss out. The first to (re)arrive was a delightful young lady who introduced herself as Sam, and things were already looking up. Within moments a couple of older ladies arrived, and the chairs were all full. Then came a more elderly lady from Bowen Island, who I immediately offered my chair to, to much gratitude and an offer of biscuits (where do old women secret such things? They seem to produce sweets and biscuits from the most unlikely folds of their clothing).

Eventually we ended up at 8. Myself and 7 representatives of the fairer sex – though some represented it better than others. Beginning to feel ever so slightly out of place, I was hugely relieved when another bloke turned up a few minutes late. He only lived 4 blocks away – I’d driven 50km, and the lady from Bowen had probably set off at the crack of sparrows to get there on time!

We started off stuffing pillowcases with straw and boiling it for an hour to pasteurise it, while Scott began teaching us all manner of interesting fungus facts. Rick Havlak, the Emporium’s owner had conjoured up a selection of additional seats and pens/binders, so at this point I could actually start recording the wisdom being shared. (Yes – all the women had brought their own pens. What are you trying to get at?!)

Having been suitably “educated”, we got to do stuff, and we were drilling holes in logs quicker than you could say “Bob’s your Aunty’s transgender live-in lover”. These were then filled in again… with dowlings inoculated with mycelium (see – I told you I was educated now!) of shiitake. Then we got to set fire to stuff (nearly anyway) by melting beeswax to seal in the mushroomy goodness. The smell was amazing as it heated up.

There were only 4 drills, so we paired up and within an hour or so, each of us was the proud owner of a bloody great big log teaming with shiitake spawn. (Somehow that just sounds so wrong…) Then the other shoe landed… these logs would take 12-18 months to “fruit”, and only if you cared for them just right! Oh well… at least I had fun with the power tools! 🙂

OK – lunch break. The remaining pillowcases of straw were swapped into the drum of water for their hour of sterilisation, and we were sent off to forrage for food. I’d brought an apple, which was as much forward planning as I could manage on a Saturday morning. But I knew where to find caffeine!

I wandered back to the car, and was mildly shocked to pass by a rather scantily clad woman who seemed in no particular hurry to cross the intersection in either potential direction. I collected my book (a learned tome on the various aspects of swearing – suggested to me by our man at Misfits’ Miscellany, and being greatly, if somewhat slowlyly (?!) enjoyed), and passed her on the way back too. Thankfully she didn’t regard me as one needing to be shown a good time just then, and I made my way physically if not mentally unscathed to the Wilder Snail. Here I ordered a London Fog. This, if you’re unaware, is a way of making many times more than the ethical amount of profit from a cup of tea and a bit of frothy milk. I sat outside so I could get a better look at the book being read by the young lady on the inside – In The Skin of the Lion, as it turned out. A few passers-by commented on my T-shirt (to each other, not to me). It yelled “I survived the Grind” in big letters. I figured since I’d walked it a few times in the last couple of months, I might as well let people know.

As I sat sipping my tea (if it’s expensive I’ve noticed that you drink it more slowly…) I happened to notice some urban art in the tree next to my table. It reminded me of the urban art I blogged about a few months ago. Or perhaps a Dream-catcher.

Anyway, tea drunk, book enjoyed, I headed back to fungus central. The afternoon flew past. We used hardwood chips to inoculate our own starter spawn for Winecap mushrooms (king stropharia). Because of the season, this won’t go outside until Spring, but is capable of giving many years of shrooms. The straw had all cooled down now, and we each made a bag of Oyster mushrooms with layers of straw and mycelium. These should totally colonise the straw in about 4 weeks and be shoving out mushrooms for the plate in around 6.

Finally we got to experiment with coffee grinds and more Oyster mushrooms.

Basically mushrooms digest organic material – anything from corn cores, through straw, wood chips  to coffee grinds. We learnt that it is important to limit the possibility of other fungi or bacteria out-competing the preferred fungus, and nitrile gloves and denatured alcohol were de rigeur for the day.

Our little group attracted occasional interest from the locals strolling down the back alley, and we were even asked if we were a prayer group (some of the local refuges were church sponsored). Mushrooms seemed to confuse most, but one more inquisitive fellow seemed to be completely thrown by the knowledge that you could eat mushrooms rather than just get high on them.

Quite shocked that we really had used the full 6 hours up, I loaded up my new fungi and headed for home… past a different woman who seemed to have problems finding clothes that covered her up properly. As I drove, I realised my left thumb was bloody sore, and was horrified to see a massive bruise on the pad of it. This was from pushing the dowling rods into the logs, and my “one a day” Aspirin causing my blood to be thinner than usual. I bleed more easily these days. Life’s a bitch, eh?

Now, as long as Mrs E doesn’t spot the boxes and bags of fungus in the garage, and the slugs don’t munch the spawn out of the logs outside, we’re on to a winner, dear reader. Photos to follow… if anything is good enough to eat!

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10 responses

7 10 2012
A Dog With Fleas

Sounds like you had quite the interesting day; filled with quite interesting sights of people-watching!! Love this post and how you had me hooked at your great story-telling of your day!! Hope to see pics of the mushrooms soon. Good luck with them!

7 10 2012
Quieter Elephant

That really is *very* kind of you to say! I tried to make it conversational, so the reader would feel pulled along… I’m relieved to learn I succeeded at least once. I think it’s the longest post I’ve ever made, and I did wonder if anyone would actually make it to the end.

7 10 2012
A Dog With Fleas

I got througn it in no time. I was so intersted in hearing about your adventure that it did not seem long at all to me. Great post.

7 10 2012
Quieter Elephant

Haha… are you working on that second pocket-fluffed chocolate button?

7 10 2012
A Dog With Fleas

Sure am….If I knew you had more I would have added more nice things to say! 🙂

7 10 2012
Quieter Elephant

Ah – for THAT you need to answer the riddle of the elephant in the fridge

7 10 2012
A Dog With Fleas

Oh no…..an obstacle!! I’m intrigued!

7 10 2012
Quieter Elephant

Come on… chocolate is worth *any* challenge!

7 10 2012
A Dog With Fleas

So true my friend!!

10 10 2012
Phillip Ross Molds Fast-Growing Fungi Into Mushroom Building Bricks That Are Stronger than Concrete | Inhabitat « The Reclamation Administration « Quieter Elephant

[…] I mean – I’ve been to only ONE meeting of the Vancouver Mycological Society, ONE “how to cultivate mushrooms” class, and ONE “foray” around UBC‘s Pacific Spirit […]

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